I first watched the 1995 Japanese science-fiction animated (anime) classic ‘Ghost in the Shell’ via Des Mangan, the cult movie presenter whose film selections on SBS on a Friday and Saturday night shaped the taste of a generation of Aussie teens. Opening with a slick action set piece featuring a naked heroine and composer Kenji Kawai’s theme ‘Making of a Cyborg’ (an ancient Japanese Min’yō chant mixed with elements from Bulgarian music), I was instantly drawn into the film’s eerie futuristic world.
Based on Masamune Shirow's comics (manga), ‘Ghost in the Shell’ influenced a number of prominent filmmakers. The Wachowskis’ ‘The Matrix’ series took several concepts from the film and other parallels have been drawn to Steven Spielberg's ‘AI: Artificial Intelligence’ and Jonathan Mostow's ‘Surrogates’. James Cameron dubbed the film “a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence.” So how does the live-action version live up to its acclaimed predecessor?
Cyborg counter-cyberterrorist field commander The Major (Scarlett Johansson, ‘Lucy’), her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, ‘Ben-Hur’), Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano, ‘Battle Royale’) and task force Section 9 thwart hackers and terrorists. In a world interconnected by a vast electronic network that permeates every aspect of life, much of humanity use cybernetic bodies, or "shells", which possess their consciousness and can give them superhuman abilities. Now, The Major and Section 9 must investigate a series of mysterious killings aimed at sabotaging Hanka Robotics' artificial intelligence technology.
SWITCH: 'GHOST IN THE SHELL' FINAL TRAILER
Director Rupert Sander’s take on ‘Ghost in the Shell’ isn’t a straight-up adaptation of the 1995 film. Instead, it also draws from the manga and 2002 television series ‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’. William Wheeler, who worked on the live-action script for approximately a year and a half, was quoted as saying, “It's a vast enterprise. I think I was second or third in the mix, and I know there have been at least six or seven writers.” Jonathan Herman also worked on the screenplay. Ultimately, credit for the screenplay was given to Wheeler, Jamie Moss and Ehren Kruger.
That is a lot of hands for a script to pass through - and it shows onscreen. Instead of giving the storyline more depth and scope by incorporating those additional sources into the film, the plot is muddied, necessitating a lot of laborious expository dialogue (for instance, the audience is told twice in the first ten minutes that a “ghost” is just fancy future-talk for a soul).
Kenji Kawai’s score for the 1995 film is one of the all-time greatest movie soundtracks. It is haunting and delicate in a way that most bombastic Hollywood action soundtracks aren’t, which is presumably why the producers of this new live-action remake picked ‘Requiem for a Dream’ composer Clint Mansell to score it. However, for reasons unclear, Steve Aoki has remixed the 1995 movie’s theme into a wobble-heavy EDM track (presented in the film’s advertising and end credits) with none of the subtlety of Kawai’s source material.
That lack of subtlety doesn’t end there.
Performances range from stilted (Johansson, so good as an alien in a woman costume in ‘Under The Skin’, is unable to strike the right balance with her slowly awakening cyborg) to hammy (Peter Ferdinando as cliché corporate baddie, Cutter) to comatose (Takeshi Kitano in a ‘Wolverine’ wig, delivering all his dialogue in Japanese while his subordinates speak in English). Juliette Binoche and Michael Wincott are wasted. If anyone comes close to putting in a memorable performance, it’s Michael Carmen Pitt. As a shady cyborg, a mash-up of two characters from the anime film and TV series, Pitt uses the vocal stylings of Stephen Hawking and slumped posture to make his role arresting.
Performances range from stilted to hammy to comatose.
“But does the movie at least look cool?” I hear you cry, despairingly.
Yes. Rupert Sanders has a background as an advertising director, an eye for striking shots and an obvious appreciation for anime; the influence of Hayao Miyazaki was writ large over Sanders’ debut film, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’. His futuristic Asian-infused cityscape is ‘Blade Runner’ on steroids and its denizens are a fantastically rendered bunch of colourful robotic weirdos (courtesy of New Zealand's Weta Workshop). It also looks terrific in 3D, which enhances the viewing experience, rather than distracting from it.
At times, Sanders seems too in love with his own creation. He peppers the film with so many establishing shots of his city that the giant holographic advertisements, neon lighting and flying debris lose impact. Also, the action scenes feel strangely boxed-in, the action contained by invisible walls, like a videogame. This is fine for the lengthy battles in confined nightclubs and factories, but odd for wide-screen action scenes ripped straight from the anime, like The Major taking down a terrorist in a massive shallow lake or her iconic battle with a spider-like armoured vehicle.
Lastly, the casting of Johansson in the lead role of The Major (named Motoko Kusanagi in the anime) has caused accusations of whitewashing. It has been alleged that the filmmakers at one point commissioned the usage of CGI and other visual effects testing to alter Johansson's appearance in order to make her appear Asian (Paramount has stated the tests were short-lived and did not involve Johansson). Sanders went to great pains to ethnically diversify his futuristic city and even Mamoru Oshii (director of the original films) has given Johansson’s casting his blessing. Without drifting into spoiler territory, the exploration of The Major’s origin is not so much racially offensive as it is a goofy misfire.
Ultimately, Johansson’s casting is symbolic of the live-action version of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ on the whole: impressive-looking but also quite clumsy, forgettable and largely unnecessary.